What to have—and have not—in 1999

Technology developments never cease. So, how do you figure out what you must buy and
what you really don’t need?


To help you out, reviewers in the GCN Lab came up with a list of what to buy and what
to pass on.


You’re hungry for the fastest computer out there, and, at 500-MHz, the Pentium III
looks prime. But don’t rush to get it. At present, Intel Corp.’s newest
processor delivers only a few extra megahertz and, at the most, an 11 percent gain in
application performance over the 450-MHz Pentium II.


It also costs slightly more than a Pentium II system. We don’t see enough bang for
the buck.


The Pentium III’s 70 new instructions will initially benefit consumer games more
than government business apps. As with the Pentium MMX three years ago, software must be
written specifically to take advantage of the extra Pentium III code.


The only such software the Lab has seen that is even remotely important to government
users is Adobe Systems’ Photoshop 5.0. Stick with the high-end Pentium II for now.


Intel’s Celeron, in contrast, gives not just bang for the buck but explosive value
for hundreds of thousands of task-oriented government workers. Walk into any agency and
look around.


There are plenty of 486 PCs still on desks, still performing vital tasks. Not only is
their year 2000 readiness a concern, but modern software barely works on them.


It’s time for a hardware upgrade. Celeron systems deliver respectable performance
and cost less than $1,000 from top-name computer makers.


When specifying systems, you might be tempted to get DVD drives instead of standard
CD-ROM drives. A few bucks more seems little to pay for the medium of the future. Well,
resist. Without a solidly entrenched writable standard behind it, DVD can deliver little
more than movies and games. It has the potential for high-end storage and other government
applications, but we cannot think of one must-have reason to buy DVD.


Moreover, some CD-ROMs, particularly CDs with a blue coating, are unreadable in DVD
drives.


The government runs on data. Every agency collects, analyzes or disseminates it, which
in turn imposes a big storage burden. Whether you archive budget data or geographical
statistics, storage can be a huge headache, especially if users want frequent access.


For many offices, recordable or rewritable compact disks will fit the need. Called CD-R
and CD-RW, respectively, they ensure that old data does not get put out to pasture
prematurely just because there is no room for it in the barn.


CD-R disks can be recorded only once—depending on your situation, that can be a
limitation or a security feature. Once recorded, the data cannot be changed. CD-RW permits
thousands of rewrites, a sort of running archive. When the numbers become permanent, you
can re-record them in CD-R format on the same disk, making a final version for archival
purposes.


This SCSI-replacement input/output technology gets an A for its cool name, but the
computer industry has been slow to adopt it. FireWire likely will bring faster multimedia,
easier cabling and faster computers, but it currently is valuable only to niche users.


Moreover, SCSI has managed to keep pace with FireWire by raising its own access speeds
and reducing cost. FireWire will eventually prevail, however, because the underlying
technology is faster, cheaper and more user-friendly.


For now, keep on buying SCSI and Universal Serial Bus connections. Only the more
demanding users will blaze the trail as early adopters of FireWire.


Users universally love Universal Serial Bus. We doubt you can buy a computer these days
without at least one USB slot. The hassle-free connection removes worry about male or
female pins and compatible ports. You plug a device in the slot as simply as plugging an
electric cord into a wall socket.


The USB devices the lab has tested have been fast, equaling or surpassing devices
connected to parallel or serial ports. And their thin cords are easier to manage than
clunky cables. USB could become users’ and PC makers’ top choice by mid-2000.


Not long ago, we sat down with a leading notebook maker who touted the newest 15.1-inch
display. “The demand for this baby is really incredible,” the vendor said. But
it turned out that more than 90 percent of the demand came from first-time buyers.


If you’ve ever carried a notebook through airports, you know that that baby weighs
almost as much as a toddler, and the battery power drain is just as heavy. For most
notebook buyers, 13-inch displays are fine. The smaller the display, the less battery
drain and the less strain on your shoulder.


Travelers who only check their e-mail or do other rudimentary tasks on the road find
handheld devices a godsend. Smaller and easier to manage than a notebook, a handheld can
easily ride inside a shirt pocket or jacket. You never have to part with your crucial
equipment in an airport line.


Many of the tiny performers run the Microsoft Windows CE operating system and can carry
out near-desktop-class functions. The Compaq C-Series works and feels almost like a
desktop system. If you want something even smaller, look at the Palm IV or V models from
Palm Computing Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. You can hold either in one hand, and the V
model has a snazzy leather case.


Nothing inspires greater awe in co-workers than a thin, wide desktop LCD display, but
the price you pay is still too high in most cases. Although most LCDs now have 160-degree
viewing angles, only rarely do they deliver contrast and brightness as good as on standard
CRTs. You might be stuck with substandard graphics after paying three times the price of a
high-end CRT.


There are a few exceptions to this rule, one being the Apple Studio Display. It
performs amazingly well and is a bright spot in an otherwise dull market. But unless you
are pinched for space, a CRT is your best bet.


The digital camera market has made huge strides in a short time. The MX-2700 camera
from Fuji Photo Film USA Inc. of Elmsford, N.Y., for example, squeezes in a terrific 2.3
million pixels per photo, closely approaching the quality of a 35-mm film photo. The $600
MX-2700 weighs only 8 ounces.


We’ve tried a few of these. They make the user scan a document, turn it into a
.tiff file or other graphical image and attach it to e-mail. The whole clumsy process
demands a harmonic convergence of technologies.


Only one company seems to have the right idea about this kind of appliance:
Hewlett-Packard Co. And HP did not call its system an Internet fax machine. Instead, it is
the 9100C Digital Sender, which turns paper into electronic files [GCN, Oct. 26, 1998, Page 24]. And it works.


Scanners used to cost thousands of dollars. Today, you can buy a decent flatbed scanner
for about $100. No self-respecting Web or graphics designer should be without one.


If speed is what you need in a budget scanner, the PaperPort 3100USB from Visioneer
Inc. of Fremont, Calif., is a racehorse. An all-around good scanner that behaves more like
a workhorse is the Hewlett-Packard 6250c, which costs a bit more than budget models.


Despite government users’ long love affair with ink-jet printers, it’s time
for most users to wake up. Only one or two people in an office used to need color, so
instead of sinking big bucks into a network color printer, the procurement officer would
buy $500 ink-jets for the individuals.


Nowadays, many more people need color. Bite the bullet and get a real printer to do the
heavy lifting.


Color lasers have come on strong because of the increased use of color in presentations
and because users want to print from the Web in color.


Color lasers are the best route to economical, high-output color printing. Other types
of printers can handle photographs beautifully, but their quality is prohibitively
expensive at the high output levels laser printers can handle.


If you want to bring color into the workplace, color lasers are a definite buy. They
have finally achieved a low cost per sheet as well as a low procurement cost that rivals
good monochrome laser prices.


In the increasingly electronic world, 10 Mbps still outstrips the modem lines at home,
but it’s just not adequate for a party line full of packets. Government has been an
early adopter of fiber, asynchronous transfer mode and other fast communications
standards.


Before the electronic traffic jam gets worse, agencies need to upgrade. Fast Ethernet
is the current remedy, but we think switching from shared hubs to switches will relieve
gridlock in the future.


Were you an early buyer of one or the other of the competing 56-Kbps K56flex and x2
modem flavors before the V.90 standard became final? Feel a little gun-shy now? You can
relax about future purchases. Pretty much all 56-Kbps modems sold these days meet the V.90
standard, which alleviates worries about interoperability.


The V.90 standard was the best thing to come along for modems in quite some time.


Its requirements for a dial-in host are strict, but downloads are faster because there
is only one analog-to-digital conversion along the path of a call.


It’s true that dialing through a private branch exchange will cut you down to 33.6
Kbps, but we still think these modems are a worthwhile buy.


In the biblical tale of the tower of Babel, the construction workers began speaking
different languages and could not communicate well enough to keep building their tower up
to the sky. The modern equivalent would be forcing them to communicate via voice dictation
software. They might end up constructing a flower or shower or something besides a tower.


Even the best voice dictation packages recognize only about 90 percent of spoken words
correctly. That means 10 percent gets mangled. If 10 percent of every brick in a building
were faulty, would you live or work in it?


Virus warnings arrive regularly via e-mail. Most are hoaxes, but the digital world is
still full of virulent bugs that can wreak havoc on your agency’s precious data.
Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif., and Network Associates Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.,
which publish good PC antivirus software, now offer an even greater service through their
Web sites.


Norton Antivirus and McAfee VirusScan filter the real from the ruse. Get your virus
updates and see what’s truly a threat on the vendors’ sites at www.symantec.com/avcenter  and vil.mcafee.com.  


Do we need another office suite version from Microsoft Corp.? After Office 97, can
anyone see a need to migrate or upgrade? As several GCN reviews have pointed out, Lotus
SmartSuite and Corel WordPerfect satisfy the needs of federal users as well as or better
than Office.


Everything we didn’t like about Office 97 is magnified in the Office 2000 version
due out this month. The Outlook Assistant is even more annoying. There are plenty of other
unnecessary features, such as its so-called native Web document formats.


You cannot save documents in Hypertext Markup Language, the standard code for Web
pages. You must save to a special Office version of HTML, which Microsoft has hijacked and
added to Office’s already bloated code. Web document sizes will explode.


The new Office offers no new must-have features to justify its purchase. We would feel
more positive if Office had the same feature set without the multiple service packs and
fixes. Word processing and spreadsheet creation have not changed much in the last decade.


Although we haven’t looked closely at the new Acrobat 4.0 viewer that is expected
soon, we see how essential Acrobat has become on government and commercial Web sites. Some
organizations do not bother translating their printed documents into Web-speak, they
simply save to Adobe’s Portable Document Format, which is much more compact than
Microsoft Word’s DOC format.  


John Breeden II, Jason Byrne and Michael Cheek contributed to this article.





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